Believe with the Heart
Paul, an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, writing to the Saints at Woods Church: Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
My dear friends, I write to you as you begin your observance of this Holy Season, a slow journey through a time of self-examination and prayer, in order to ready yourselves for the challenges which come to us as followers of Jesus Christ, and the high calling of serving as witnesses to his resurrection.
And indeed there is no better place to begin than to hear once again of Jesus’ own sojourn in the wilderness, that season of 40 days of prayer and fasting for our Lord, as he prepared to begin his own public ministry. It was a time of testing and discernment as Jesus heard the very voice of Satan urging him to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread, tempting him with promises of power and personal glory by following the ways of evil, inviting him even to test God by casting himself down from the pinnacle of the temple.
You know how the story turns out—Christ Jesus resists the real and persistent temptations—but what does it mean for you as you gather here today? What does it mean for the church today to call Jesus Lord, faced with the temptations of the modern world which challenge both individual believers and the church, the body of Christ, itself? How do we rely on him to help us overcome those temptations?
This is a question which I addressed in my Letter to the Romans. For although I had not personally founded that church or had even visited it when I wrote that epistle, I knew there was already confusion in Rome about what it meant to call Jesus Lord. I knew also that many of those Roman Christians had a Jewish background, and so I quoted from the Hebrew scriptures.
“The word is near, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)… Some of you here today will recognize this quotation from the Book of Deuteronomy, as did any of my readers then who knew the Hebrew Bible. From my own upbringing I knew that Jews had long made a practice of memorizing large portions of scripture; they didn’t have to go searching for the truth of faith, the words were literally “on their lips,” whispered as prayers, recited out loud in the synagogue. These words resided “in their hearts” as confessions of faith which had sustained them through centuries of trial and bondage.
The practice of our faith had always included the retelling of the story of salvation; God’s rescue of Israel from bondage in Egypt. But I also wanted them to understand that story in light of the salvation found in following Jesus Christ, and so I wrote, “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The words that are to be on our lips are these: Jesus is Lord. This is the first and most basic confession of faith for all Christians. It is still asked today when new believers join the church: Who is your Lord and Savior? Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior!
Anything else you say you believe is based on this all-encompassing affirmation. Nor was this a matter of mere ritual for the Roman Christians: Those residing in the Roman Empire were required to swear allegiance to Caesar, to own that Caesar himself was a god. Failure to do so had real implications for life and death—literally!
Further, there is a new definition of faith that must come into the heart of the Christian believer: faith in the resurrection, Christ’s being raised form the dead. You see, my dear friends, as I told the Romans, just as God’s saving action in bringing Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land was the greatest symbol of faith for the Hebrews, so this same God’s bringing Jesus back from the grave is the new benchmark of faith for the church.
So, what does it mean for you to confess Jesus is Lord in these modern times? For the Christians at Rome, it meant they could actually face death for defying and denying the emperor. But perhaps in these days, the greatest challenge is to say “Jesus is Lord” to the face of a society which is not so much anti-church as it is indifferent to the church. Perhaps you will find it more costly to say “Jesus is Lord” when you have to disagree with the prevailing political or societal sentiment in the community, or in the neighborhood, or even in the church itself. Perhaps you will have to profess by words or actions that God is on the side of the poor and the downtrodden, and not always on the side of those who have power.
And what does it mean for you to, “Believe in your hearts that God has raised Christ from the dead.” My dear friends at Woods Church, this is more than a matter of intellectual understanding, or agreement with a doctrine. It is even more than hope for the life that is to come beyond this life, although that is surely involved. More than all of this, to believe in the resurrection of Christ is trust in God’s power to change and transform life; it is the belief that love triumphs over the sin which crucified the Savior of the world, triumphs over the sin which still troubles individuals and society, triumphs and makes all things new. Believing in your heart that God has raised Christ from the dead is found in the power and freedom which enables us to share God’s love with others in the here and now.
And so as you begin this holy season, how will your confession that Jesus is Lord be on your lips? How will your faith in Christ’s resurrection be in your hearts? There are centuries of tradition which would invite you to “give up” something for Lent, but perhaps this year, you might choose to add something.
Would it help you to carve out 15 or 20 minutes a day to sit with the scriptures or a devotional guide or a journal, and read and think and pray every day about who Christ is to you, and what Christ wants you to do? Perhaps you could join one of the many educational opportunities Woods church offers on Sunday mornings, or during the week. Might you find the gospel stories about the resurrection of Jesus, and read them as if you were reading them for the first time? What do they have to tell you at this point in your life? What difference does it make to you that God has raised Christ from the dead?
Could you find that the six weeks of Lent be a time to be recommitted to a task that has been neglected, or to become dedicated to a new ministry, or a time to pay attention to God’s call to put one of your unique gifts to work? That’s what was happening, you know, for Jesus, during his time in the wilderness: it was a strenuous test of his discernment of his call. How would he use the powers at his command?
This church of which you are a part is certainly in a time of discernment as you deal with the continuing challenges of the pandemic, and as you face the interim period without an installed pastor. As you rise to the challenges in society and the world around you, how will you respond to the call—as individuals, yes, but also as a member of Christ’s body, the church? There are mission activities you may join and there is a stewardship campaign to be supported. Dare I say, everywhere you look, there are bridges to be built.
You can do all of these things when you confess that Jesus is Lord, because that truth empowers us as nothing else can. You can do this, because you believe in the resurrection of Christ, and are freed from the fear of death. The resurrection is the promise that God can transform all of human life at any moment, and can redeem all of the frailty and suffering and sin of this transient life for life eternal.